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Discover the ways of the master craftsmen and experience authentic rural Japan and all its hidden gems in Shin’etsu (Nagano-Niigata) Shizenkyo Nature Park.
Iiyama Butsudan Dori (Buddhist Altar Street) is also known as Gangi Street because of the specially designed gangi roofing, which covers the sidewalks to protect passers through from the heavy snowfall. There are temples and shrines dotted around, which can be enjoyed along the Temple Promenade. Myosenji temple, close to Butsudan Dori, is particularly beautiful in July when the Hydrangea (Ajisai) are in full bloom.
Butsudan are wooden cabinets usually containing a statue of Buddha and are commonly found in temples and homes in Japan. The lavish yet intricate Buddhist altars are on display in a number of shops lining the street. Each altar is an example of incredible master craftsmanship, and you can almost feel the silent snow-country-like passion instilled into each masterpiece.
During the 14th Century Buddhism was deeply rooted in the area’s local culture. Buddhist altar production became an integral part of the castle and temple town. Heavy snowfall in the winter was a reason why Buddhist altars for the home became popular, and with a suitable climate for the lacquering technique, these beautiful altars are still very popular today in the “Snow Country’s Little Kyoto”.
Tourists may visit the Shinshu Lacquer Studio and try their hand at the traditional technique of lacquering with a master craftsman. This is a rare opportunity and makes for a beautiful handmade souvenir, complete with gold leaf. It is recommended to book in advance as the studio has irregular closing hours. Contact Shinshu Iiyama Tourism Bureau for more information.
Uchiyama washi is an exceptionally long lasting, strong yet delicate and beautiful Japanese washi of high quality, unique to the snow country of Iiyama and Kijimadaira. The process of making this handmade paper is complex and time consuming, requiring dedication and love for the craft.
The paper is made from the bark of the hybrid mulberry tree. Uchiyama paper uses a unique process called yukizarashi, which utilizes the sun’s ultra-violet rays and the cold snow to bleach the thin layers of bark. Yukizarashi gives the paper long lasting qualities.
The paper is of exceptionally high quality and is renowned for being used as Japanese shoji screens. Post cards, book marks and letters are also made from the paper. These are decorated with dried leaves and flowers during the finishing process and make wonderful gifts to take home for friends and family.
Visitors may try their hand at making Uchiyama washi. Contact Iiyama Tourism Association for more information.
The Battle of Kawanakajima spread through Nagano and Niigata prefectures during the 16th Century. During this time of war, blacksmiths would travel to Nagano prefecture to repair armour and weapons for battle. Local villagers in Shinano-machi acquired the skills needed to make high quality knives and sickles from the talented blacksmiths. The methods were perfected over the years and passed down through generations. What makes these tools unique is the cutting ability of the steel, which is also extremely light, making the tools easy to use and very durable.
The tsugura is a dome shaped basket that was used as a cradle for babies in rural areas of Sakae village. These cradles also became popular as a place for cats to sleep as well. Cats love them for their warmth in winter and coolness in summer. Other shaped cat cradles can also be seen, but the dome is the most popular. There are ten producers of these cradles in the area and workshops are often held to pass on the art and culture of cat cradle handicraft.
The Akebi vine handicrafts are famous to Nozawa. The weaving process is complex and can produce some intricately beautiful works of art, including lamp shades and flower baskets. Another popular souvenir is the toy dove-cart or hatoguruma (see photo above), which can be found in most souvenir shops throughout the village.
The Akebi vine which grows in the mountains of Shin’etsu Shizenkyo Nature Park is harvested during October and November, and then soaked in the hot waters of Ogama, Nozawa’s hottest hot spring, to soften them before being woven into incredibly strong and long lasting baskets. Nozawa is actually blessed with an abundance of hot springs and Ogama hot spring is used only by the local villagers; not for bathing in, but for other purposes such as cooking vegetables.
Akiyama-go is an area known for its long harsh winters and beautiful autumn colours, hence the meaning of the name: aki means autumn and yama means mountain. Wooden bowls crafted from the Japanese chestnut tree are a famous cultural tradition in the area. The bowls have a rustic handmade look, and can be up to 50cm in diameter or larger. Soba and udon are popular noodles made by the local villagers, so the bowls are crafted in such a way that the dough will not stick to the surface. Tourists are recommended to visit the traditional crafts museums in the village.
Shiga Kogen National Park is carpeted in Nemagari bamboo, a distinctive slender type of bamboo which grows wild in the Shin’etsu Shizenkyo Nature Park mountains. The bamboo is used to make traditional crafts which have been handed down through the ages. These include fish baskets, sieves, and other useful items. Sukagawa bamboo craft is a prize winner at the Japan Folks Crafts Museum, and is a designated traditional craft of Nagano.
Nakano is home to the Japan Clay Doll Museum, which displays painted clay dolls produced by two main artisan families, the Nara family (Nakano dolls) and the Nishihara family (Tategahana dolls). Tsuchibina have been produced since the Edo era. Both the Nara and Nishihara families are still making the dolls today, keeping the tradition alive. Visitors may try their hand at designing and painting their own clay doll at the Japan Clay Doll Museum.